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Large retailers are replacing plastic bags with eco-friendly paper bags

In a landmark environmental move, multinational retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) has announced the discontinuation of plastic carrier bags. Instead, the retailer is set to introduce eco-friendlier paper bags.

Developed in collaboration with the University of Sheffield, these new bags are designed to be both strong and sustainable. With a capacity to hold as much as six four-pint bottles of milk, M&S claims that the bag can be reused up to 100 times.

What makes these bags stand out is the method of their production. They are manufactured at a Scandinavian paper mill powered entirely by hydroelectricity, ensuring that their production leaves a minimal carbon footprint.

Environmental impact of paper bags

The university team assessed the environmental impact of these bags, and the results appear promising. Besides being produced using renewable energy, the bags incorporate natural resin which provides a waterproofing quality. Moreover, their eco-friendly attributes have been endorsed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Customers can expect a sturdy bag for their groceries, while those shopping from the Clothing and Home departments of M&S will receive a slightly simpler version of the bag.

Victoria McKenzie-Gould, the Director of Corporate Affairs at M&S, expressed her optimism about this shift in a blog post. She remarked, “We now have a solution that is better environmentally and which helps customers looking to make small changes to reduce their environmental footprint. For most who reuse their own bags – which remains the most sustainable option – not much will change. But when the need for an extra bag arises, we’re pleased to be offering a more sustainable choice.”

This isn’t M&S’s maiden voyage into eco-friendliness. Earlier, the company introduced recyclable paper bags and boxes for its rice, pulses, and grains range.

Many retailers switching to paper bags

M&S isn’t alone in this pursuit. Morrisons transitioned from plastic to paper bags in 2021 after a successful trial run. Sainsbury’s claimed to be the pioneer in eliminating plastic bags for vegetables, pastries, and unpacked fruits in 2019. Tesco also ditched plastic bags for its online orders in the same year.

The shift away from plastic has become a significant trend in the UK retail sector. According to data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), there has been a whopping 98% decline in the use of single-use plastic bags since 2015 when English stores initiated a charge for them. Remarkably, seven of the largest grocery chains saw their annual distribution of plastic carrier bags plummet from 7.6 billion in 2014 to just 133 million in 2022.

Minister for Environmental Quality and Resilience, Rebecca Pow, lauded the policy, stating it has prevented billions of single-use carrier bags from polluting the environment or ending up in landfills.

With these efforts, it’s evident that British retailers are heeding the call to promote sustainability, aligning their business strategies with global environmental goals.

Benefits of paper bags over plastic bags

Switching from plastic to paper bags, as M&S did recently, offers numerous advantages, both for the environment and for society. Let’s examine the myriad benefits of making this environmentally conscious choice.


Paper bags break down naturally within weeks or months, while plastic bags can take hundreds of years to decompose. By choosing paper, we significantly reduce the longevity of litter in our environment.

Paper bags are easy to recycle

People can easily recycle paper bags. Many municipalities and cities include paper bags in their curbside recycling programs. In contrast, only a few recycling centers accept plastic bags, which often end up clogging machinery.

Renewable resource

Manufacturers make paper bags from trees, a renewable resource. With sustainable forestry practices, we can ensure an endless supply of paper, whereas plastic bags come from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.

Reduces plastic pollution

When we opt for paper bags, we directly reduce the amount of plastic entering our environment. This helps prevent plastic from harming marine life, birds, and other animals that often mistake plastic fragments for food.

Consumes less energy in production

Producing paper bags requires less energy compared to plastic bags. Reduced energy consumption means fewer greenhouse gas emissions, leading to a lesser carbon footprint.

Paper bags are less toxic

Plastic bags undergo a production process that involves many toxic chemicals. These toxins can leach into the environment when plastic bags break down, poisoning water and soil. Paper bags don’t have this issue, as their manufacturing involves fewer harmful chemicals.

Economic benefits

The rising demand for eco-friendly paper bags opens up new avenues for job creation in the paper industry. This growth not only helps local economies but also encourages sustainable practices.

Encourages reusability

Although paper bags have a limited life compared to heavy-duty reusable bags, many consumers reuse them for a variety of purposes, such as organizing, crafting, or as compostable waste liners.

Improved waste management

Unlike plastics, which can remain in landfills for centuries, paper bags will decompose and reduce landfill clutter. This also means reduced costs for waste management in the long run.

Consumer preference

With growing environmental awareness, consumers prefer businesses that prioritize sustainability. Offering paper bags can enhance a brand’s image, showing commitment to environmental responsibility.

In summary, while the best option remains reusable cloth or heavy-duty bags, paper bags offer a far more sustainable alternative to plastic bags. Embracing paper bags not only supports the environment but also aligns with consumer preferences and global sustainability goals.

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